RICH BOOK, CHEAP MOVIE
Reading some copy about the movie version of Dominique Lapierre’s The City of Joy, the feature writers describe the book as “sentimental” when it’s no such thing. Though immersed in awesome poverty, it’s not schmaltzy pap—it doesn’t cheapen or romanticize or distort the living conditions of Anand Nagar. Wish I could say the movie doesn’t: director Roland Joffé and screenwriter Mark Medoff have cheapened the story in every way and worst of all is they have taken the good American doctor—played by Patrick Swayze—and turned him into the pretensions of the “art” of dramatic writing right out of Lajos Egri’s college text. They’ve made his character diametrically the opposite of what he is in Lapierre’s book in order to put him into repeated conflicts rarely or never encountered, made him inexplicably suicidal, and give him a hackneyed resolution. The next worse things they’ve done: eliminate entirely the priest—it’s now Pauline Collins as Sister (Saint) Joan—and have featured a super vicious slum Mafiosi, played by Art Malik. Anyone who reads the book can see it as a ready-made screenplay and all an honest director needs is a cast, a Steadicam and a story editor who respects the material. There are more scenes of real conflict, heartbreak, spiritual wonderment and impossible-to-believe-but-true vignettes in the book than a moviemaker could ever hope to use—for example, the young doctor amputating without anesthesia a leprous arm and watching “a mangy dog carrying it off in its mouth”—but why Joffé and Medoff had to go dreaming up new ones is beyond the pale. In the book Miamian Max Loeb, who’s just about to get his medical degree from Tulane, has read about the selfless priest of Calcutta and decides, because he needs “a change of air, to be of service,” to join him. In the very first scenes of the movie, he’s Max Lowe—changed to a supposedly less Jewish-sounding name because the movie was being filmed during the Gulf War and there were constant anti-American and anti-Israeli protests—and already an established doctor from Houston who abruptly decides to abandon his profession because he lost a child-patient on the operating room table. In the book Loeb, on his first day in the slums, helps deliver a breeched baby to a leper couple. In the movie, Lowe checks into a seedy hotel, entertains a prostie and is set up to get drunk, beaten and robbed by local terrorizer Malik, and sort of stumbles onto the slums. At first glance the faked Anand Nagar (the City of Joy), photographed approximating the color of diluted urine, appears wretched and diseased, and when we see the blackened open trench that snakes its way through the slums, we expect to get a dose of biological reality. As we get into the book, we wait for Lapierre to account for the disposal methods, since there are few bathrooms as Westerners acknowledge the meaning. He doesn’t disappoint: as horrific and appearing-to-be lacking of dignity as it might seem, it’s quite the reverse, and a queer sense of admiration occurs within the reader when the Polish priest says, “Before reaching the public conveniences, I had to cross a veritable lake of excrement. This additional trial was a courtesy of the cesspool emptiers, who had been on strike for five months. The stench was so foul that I no longer knew which was the more unbearable: the smell or the sight. That people could actually remain good-humored in the middle of so much abjection seemed quite sublime to me. They laughed and joked—especially the children who somehow brought the freshness and gaiety of their games into that cesspool. I came back from that escapade as groggy as a boxer knocked out in the first round.” Part of the obvious omission of sanitation in the movie most likely has to do with the persistent protests that occurred during the filming and, in addition to the political rants, many Indians felt that Joffé might be robbing residents of their self-respect if all aspects of life in the City of Joy were documented. (Moviegoers will note that Danny Doyle didn’t avoid the realities of dumps in Slumdog Millionaire and readers of Lapierre will note what other elements are missing: cobras and infestations of rats and bugs; how the people use cow dung cakes as fuel to cook their food made ultra spicy because much of it is rotten; and the ravages of the heat so hot that the feet of the horses who pull the rickshaws sometimes stick to the pavement of the streets.) So what do we get in the movie version? Instead of endemic cholera, there’s frequent Mafia-administered punches into Max’s stomach and a stab into rickshaw puller Hasari (played by Om Puri), who also suffers from a badly treated case of tuberculosis. When the monsoon arrives and then the flood, instead of numerous bodies, dead rodents, dogs and other animals floating through the streets of the slum, there’s Max nearly drowning after saving a leper and his baby. In the book, Max is exasperated by a lack of medical supplies and though he’s often discouraged—he periodically heads to one of Calcutta’s grand hotels for a little R&R—he’s faithful to Hippocrates. Movie Max has to be goaded into staying true to his oath. Had Joffé only condensed the material, he might have provided Patrick Swayze with the role he believes has changed his life. He’s not being disingenuous, he’s working through his then-unformulated humanatations and emotional discombobulation. Had he been given the chance to play Max as he promoted himself, he’d have been a sensation, and not coincidentally much closer to the real Max. While not Swayze’s fault that the part is now about a stereotypic angry young man, he’s far from bad. What saves him is his own deportment, his sense of agog; he’s at once thrilled and yet disbelieving that he’s playing so life-changing a role. And there’s something quite appealing about his slightly Oriental face, which, perhaps because he fell ill for three weeks during production, has finally lost its fatty repellent grubbiness; in his Bugle Boys and sun-bleached hair, he’s warm, personable. (Even the real kids of Anand Nagar liked him enormously.) He does affect us during a few of the movie’s dramatic wallops, but the problem is I can’t remember the exact moments anymore—they completely evaporated from my mind. This evanesce is central to Joffé’s muggy vision; he’s made not a movie about the City of Joy but one about vanishing vapors. Joffé is most faithful to the book’s Hasari, who is the salt of Indian earth. Om Puri’s performance is the movie’s major asset, though you lose patience with his mania for honor. Pauline Collins is wasted as an amalgam of the religious characters that Joffé thought could be vacated without spiritual loss. This may be, more than anything else, what tells us is so dummy-headed wrong with the movie. It’s maddeningly compromising when no dilution is necessary. What will rankle lovers of the book and probably enrage fair-minded Indians about the movie City of Joy is that if this is what Joffé really wanted to make, it’s even more insulting to the Indians he placated because it makes so many of them look like the fools he and Medoff made of themselves.
Text COPYRIGHT © 2007 RALPH BENNER (Revised 7/2014) All Rights Reserved.